Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Eerie Silence - UFOs and astronomers

The search for extraterrestrial life was back in the news again this week. Learned astronomers told the Royal Society that evidence of life elsewhere in the universe is likely to be found during the 21st century – but the idea that aliens were already here flying around in UFOs was laughed out of court.

That was the signal put out to the media by the world’s leading space scientists who gathered in London for a two day conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, said the chances of discovering life during this century were better than ever. With powerful space telescopes such as that carried by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, now orbiting the sun, the chances of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting stars in other solar systems have increased. “Were we to find life, even the simplest life, elsewhere that would clearly be one of the great discoveries of the 21st century,” Rees told the BBC. "I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms that we can't conceive."

For decades the optimistic predictions of SETI scientists like Frank Drake and Paul Davies, who both spoke at the conference, have encouraged the rest of us to accept that intelligent civilisations must exist elsewhere in the vast universe. But the days when governments feared mass panic if such claims were confirmed appear to be a thing of the past. Bookies Ladbrokes slashed the odds on ET life being found by the end of the decade from 5000-1 to 1000-1 after Lord Rees made his comments, which suggests we no longer fear aliens but are desperate to meet them.

But the disconnect between the carefully considered views of astronomers and those of the UFO industry – which believes aliens are already here and the facts are being concealed from the public – are still a universe apart. Lord Rees summarily dismissed UFOs by saying: “I’m utterly unconvinced.” His views were shared by others who covered the proceedings including Michael Hanlon, science writer from the Daily Mail who wrote: “Despite all the X-Files claims and conspiracy theories, there has not been a credible account of a flying saucer visitation by extra-terrestrials to Earth.”

Professor Paul Davies, whose new book The Eerie Silence: Are we alone in the universe? is published in March, is better placed than any of his contemporaries to appreciate the “will to believe” in UFOs. Back in his student days Davies was a member of BUFORA and a believer in UFOs and intelligent alien life. In 1968 he sent a letter to an academic journal to protest about an article by the eminent physicist R.V.Jones that debunked flying saucers. Drawing upon the same arguments relied upon by present-day UFO proponents such as Stan Friedman, the young Davies urged Jones to re-examine the hard evidence for UFO visitations that included ground traces and images captured on film and radar.

But speaking forty years later on BBC Radio 4, Paul Davies’s views have radically changed. Unlike the 1960s, when few scientists entertained the idea of alien life he said “it is now fashionable to think the universe is teeming with life.” Although he believes it is likely life does exist in other solar systems, the bottom line is that despite the ET hype of the past five decades “the observational evidence for life beyond earth, never mind intelligent life, is totally lacking.”

Asked if he believed aliens had already visited us, his reply – based upon 40 years of reflection since his student days – could not be clearer. He does not take UFO stories seriously and has not seen any convincing evidence of alien visitation during human history. Of course the conspiracy nuts will account for this by dismissing Davies as just another pawn in the international cover-up.

But the four decade transition of Davies from young UFO buff to a cautious and open-minded scientist is a lesson many others dazzled by the UFO "evidence" can and should learn from.

On Sunday, 7 February, the Observer published a detailed examination of what SETI has achieved fifty years since Frank Drake first pointed the Green Bank radio telescope towards Tau Ceti.

The article, by Robin McKie, quoted astronomer Seth Shotak who said he was confident a signal from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilisation would be found by 2025:

"Then we will ask other observatories to check it out, and if they back us we will simply announce the existence of a message from ET. There will be no message to the President and no interference from Men In Black."


  1. It is amazing how evidence, that stays the same, can change a persons mind. By the way most people in the UFO community (not industry by the way) do not think if some scientists changes their mind on the UFO phenomenon means there in cahoots with the government. In fact the problem is yours, by stereotyping a whole group of people by what what u see as in the media. I thought "intelligent people" are suppose to be smarter than that.
    Davies is wrong of course the evidence continues to prove that. But it of course his right to change his mind. As for you the writer you prove that intelligent people can be very unwise and sometimes just as close minded. Remember Davies never walk on the moon, Edgar Mitchel did, and he believes ETs are real and visiting earth right now.
    Joe Capp
    UFO Media Matters
    Non-Commercial Blog

  2. Yes Edgar Mitchell believes ETs are real, just like millions of other people. But he has no proof, he hasn't met one himself, and he has just heard the same stories that everyone else has heard. The fact that he is an astronaut and has walked on the moon makes not one iota of different.
    Just because a lot of people believe something doesn't make it real.
    If Edgar Mitchell declared that he believed in angels would we also have to accept they existed too?

  3. No, but if a responsible person such as an airline or fighter pilot reports a UFO, and their sighting is supported by radar, both airborne and ground, plus other data such as electromagnetic disturbances, are we supposed to dismiss this out of hand? Granted, most jobbing scientists will not risk their reputation without concrete, indisputable evidence, but to dismiss the phenomena out of hand is both closed-minded and crass.